If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation. — C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (p. 227)
What an apt analogy for Christmas. Chronicle of Joy Surprised by Joy is C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) autobiographical account of his experience with Joy in his younger days, that elusive something of which he had a hard time grasping. Subtitled The Shape of my Early Life, it is an honest chronicle of an intellectual journey. As a young teenager going to the junior school of Wyvern, Lewis had shed the veneer of Christianity from home and declared himself an atheist. But his quest for Joy remained. It was to him an ‘inconsolable longing’ for ‘the real Desirable’. As a child, a form of Joy came to him through solitary reading, writing and drawing. In his youth, Joy channelled through Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, or Northernness. As he grew, he began to realize that pleasure did not equate with Joy, neither physical nor aesthetic, neither Nature nor Wagnerian music, neither books nor poetry, nor the intellectual gratification from reading, nor the excitement of Northernness.
You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. .. Joy is not a substitue for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. (p. 170)
Reading and Studying Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s chronicle of his encounters with books and countless authors. As a young boy he was first taught Latin by his mother, who sadly died of illness when he was only nine years old. He went through all forms of education, home, public, boarding school, and the most gratifying to him was after his father pulled him out of Wyvern and directed him to a private teacher in preparation for Oxford. While his father was uncertain about the move, Lewis secretly relished the idea and thrived in the experience. His teacher was Mr. Kirkpatrick, or ‘Bookman’. He was an atheist, a rationalist, a logician. He had acutely sharpened Lewis’s critical thinking with logic and Dialectics, and well prepared him to enter Oxford. He assigned to Lewis readings from classical literature: Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. On his own, Lewis immersed in Norse myths and the Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His reading expanded to Goethe and Voltaire. It was only later upon a friend Arthur’s influence that he began to devour literature in the English language. “I read … all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens.” There were of course others, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Malory, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, the Romantics, Yeats, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.
I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. (P. 190)
Yet he could not help but began to revise some of his world views. Yeats, Maeterlinck, and ultimately, George MacDonald informed him of alternative glimpses other than the material world. Unde hoc mihi I admit I had to look this Latin phrase up. And this I found: Unde hoc mihi … translated as “And whence is this to me” (KJV), or “And why is this granted to me” (ESV) A phrase that moved me so. As I was reading, two-third into his autobiography these words leapt out:
Unde hoc mihi? In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. (p. 181)
Lewis describes the epiphany, utterly inexplicable, the moment which came to him when all things seemed so clear, and the presence of something not mythical or magical which he had craved in his mind, but ‘Holiness’. It was then that his Atheism was transformed into Theism (In a moment of divine enlightenment not unlike Levin’s conversion at the end of Anna Karenina.) This humble exclamation unde hoc mihi is used by Lewis as he alludes to Luke 1:43 when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who also by miraculous means in her barren state, pregnant with John, the forerunner before Christ. Upon hearing Mary’s salutation to her, Elizabeth felt the babe leap in her womb, and she exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why, a learned scholar, specialist of the Classics, logical thinker skilled in Dialectics, claimed no credits of his own in this enlightenment. But it is only the beginning, he had not met the Person yet. Further, he realized that whatever that had given him Joy before, like Nature,
that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure. (p. 204)
As he began to teach at Oxford, Lewis was surprised to find two fellow professors he respected were, alas, Christians. One of them was J. R. R. Tolkien. But Lewis was an unlikely candidate for Christianity, with his ‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and his abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’ (p. 172). Yet that unquenchable longing for Joy was ever present. Friendship with Tolkien began to break down some long held biases. He admitted that “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths… To accept the Incarnation was a further step… It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.” It was another year before Lewis finally “gave in and admitted that God was God… Perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England.” Ironically, as he humbly exclaimed unde hoc mihi, ‘why is this granted to me’, he was submitting to ‘Divine humility’, the Incarnation. Hamlet finally met his Author. And what of Joy? I can’t give out too many spoilers, can I?
I read Surprised By Joy along with Bellezza. Do click here to read her thoughts on the book.
Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life by C. S. Lewis, Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, Florida, 1955, 238 pages. This is the edition I read with the image posted.
Reading the Season is my annual Christmas Read: